QWERTY – here to stay?

I know I’ve only been blogging about relatively light topics these days — maybe it’s because my non-blogging time has had enough “heft” that the blogging has been a break.

Well, today’s post is no exception!  I was sent an article today by JL (who received it from JB) concerning the origins and persistent endurance of the QWERTY keyboard and the public’s lack of acceptance of the much better Dvorak keyboard, and I thought I would pass it along.  (For those who have never heard of the QWERTY keyboard, look down: it is very likely the keyboard arrangement under your nose as you read this on your computer or laptop, named after the first 6 letters on the top row of keys.)

I thought it was an interesting article.  I’ve been fascinated by the keyboard layout of our common QWERTY keyboards for some time, and I’ve known about the Dvorak arrangement of keys, too.  However, there was still much that I learned in the article.  For instance, the distant origins of our keyboards as a once alphabetical arrangement is revealed in the second row of keys, where we see these keys in order: DFGHJKL, with E almost between D & E in the row above, and I almost (but not as “almost”) between G & H in the row above.

For those who don’t know why the keys on our keyboards are laid out as they are, it may be a very interesting read.  For those who don’t know why they continue to be laid out that way when there is a much better way, it may be a frustrating read.  I’m not sure how passionate you are about your keyboards. 🙂

It did cause me to wonder, though: Will they every modify the keyboard layout for “thumb typers” on iPhones, Blackberries, etc.?  Not like the numerical pad arrangement (ABC on 2, etc.) which is just a convenience for fitting letters onto fewer keys.  I mean, if such thought went into arranging the keys so specifically for two hands and ten fingers, how would  a keyboard be best arranged for pure thumb-based typing?

(I do not include the iPad in this, which seems designed to prevent comfortable typing based on the one I have played with.  I have never felt as much lack of desire to type anything as I did with that uncomfortably big iPhone in my hands, but that’s a tale for another day…)

For those who’d like to learn a little historical nugget and wonder why our keyboard layout is designed the way it is — with such purposeful inefficiency — and why efforts to improve it never catch on, this is the article for you: From the April 1997 issue of Discover Magazine, “The Curse of QWERTY” — subtitled, “O typewriter? Quit your torture!” (bonus points if you see what’s special about the letters in that subtitle, by the way…).

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22 thoughts on “QWERTY – here to stay?

  1. Yes, I spotted the common thread: all the letters in that sentence are found in the top row of the QWERTY keyboard.

    I remember reading of a somewhat parallel example in (I believe it was) Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. One of the major ketchup makers (he didn’t say which one) experimented with making ketchup that actually tasted like fresh tomatoes. In taste tests it was rejected soundly – people have become too used to thinking that ketchup is “supposed” to taste like overcooked, burned, oversalteed tomatoes. (OK, he wasn’t that,/i> polemic in his language.)

    It’s the same thing with computers. People keep hanging on to PCs when Macs are so far superior; Blackberries when iPhones are so far superior; laptops when IPads (even Version 1.0) are so far superior; Windows when Snow Leopard or Linux or Squirrel Running In Circles In A Cage is so far superior…you get the drift. 😉 (Mea culpa maxima, by the way, with regard to Windows laptops; I have two, W-XP and W-7, both SONY VAIOs.) 😀

  2. That subtitle is all top row, er, above home row. I first guessed left hand.

    I’ve committed to ergo keyboards. You should see the crazy ergo designs. A co-works has a keyboard where the <a href="http://www.kinesis-ergo.com/freestyle.htm"two halves are separated by a foot of space. A co-worker’s hands spaz when he approaches my Natural keyboard. Ironic that Microsoft is the most prominent maker of ergo keyboards, but Apple pioneered them, but stopped. You can configure Dvorak keyboard layout without replacing the hardware. I’ve also taken preference to vim for it’s efficiency.

    Speculative art for the iPad shows the keys laid our circularly for thumb typing.

  3. Chelsey

    This is an issue I’ve been aware of for quite some time. In fact, I embraced Dvorak about two years ago, since I never quite learned how to touchtype with QWERTY. I use Dvorak exclusively, and can hit 120 words per minute on a good day. I changed the keyboard on my laptop and brought a Dvorak keyboard into work. Never looked back!

  4. Trish

    I have wondered at times why the keyboards on my computers are set up the way they are. Who decided to put the letters where they were put. This was interesting and insightful. Thank you. Although I am most accustomed to this set up and can type fast, it is only out of need that I have learned to. I will explore this more.

  5. Ed Ewert

    I read this article when it came out. I decided to set my Amiga 500 keyboard as a Dvorak keyboard and play around with it. But ultimately, I didn’t type enough long sections to make it worthwhile to bother with a setup that looked different than my actual keyboard.

    I looked at similar issues too. How about more condensed writing? (I use eg: vj, wj for words “of the, with the”). Or maybe 32 letters? Or how about a different number base? (I would like a base 12 number system, but the Bible seems to be base 10 oriented.) On could go on and on re-organizing things like these.

  6. Base 12???? Why that? Well, it has geometric and harmonic advantages to be sure, including musical ones, but the utility of a base is contextual, isn’t it? We happily use the Babylonian base 60 (some claim if memory serves, base 3600) in clocks and degree measurements, and it suits the purposes just fine.

    Most counting in the Bible is indeed base 10: “digital”, so to speak. That facilitates rapid counting by beings with ten fingers. But unlike our foot which is divided into 12 inches, the cubit is divided into six handbreaths and the handbreath into five (I think, five) fingerbreaths. A cubit and a handbreath is seven handbreaths, and thus not surprisingly it’s the cubit of the sanctuary. A calendar day is divided into 24 hours, 60 minutes, and 1080 parts to fit the lunisolar cycle, and parts are further divided into moments. These are not “bases” to be sure, but I think they illustrate the point that “one size doesn’t fit all” when you start dividing up numbers for various uses.

  7. You mentioned that the iPad “seems designed to prevent comfortable typing based on the one I have played with.” I agree entirely. I was shocked to realize that I can type more quickly with one thumb on my iPhone than with any number of thumbs and fingers on the iPad.

    Regarding Dvorak vs. QWERTY, there’s one important factor that I hope everyone keeps in mind. You can mess up your hands, wrists and arms very severely while using Dvorak, just as you can while using QWERTY. No matter which keyboard you use, you need to pay attention to the positions of (and supports for) your wrists and elbows while you type. It’s not as though you can cure a bad ergonomic situation simply by ditching QWERTY in favor of Dvorak.

    And while we’re at it, the overall ergonomic profile of the iPad fairly well screams to me, “Use me the way you would use a yellow pad of paper!” Apple, please get on the ball and release an iPhone OS update with Newton-or-better quality handwriting recognition!

  8. Steve

    I like the old, regular keyboard just the way it is. I can type without thinking about it. If others want different keyboards, then that’s great. As long as I can use my regular keyboard, I’m happy.

  9. Ed Ewert

    Rakkav,
    Among various reasons for picking base 12 is that I would have 12 hrs in the day (0 to 11), 144 min. per hour, and 144 sec. per minute. Then 1 second would be close to being equal to 1/3 of our seconds. And years ago, in Church of God literature, I can`t remember what, there was a reference to 1/3 of a second as a basic unit of time in reference to daily and lunar cycles; I cant remember what exactly, but it seemed an important point.

    Isaac Asimov, years ago wrote about what he preferred as a base. It came down to 8 or 16 for him, and he picked 8 because he thought 16 was too big.

    Base 10 is the (or, a) QWERTY of mathematics (my thoughts. This is how my reference to this topic relates to this article.)

    Also, see Duodecimal in Wikipedia.

  10. Just a quick note to say thanks to all for their comments! Personally, I’ve always been tempted to move to a Dvorak layout, but I work on so many different keyboards at different times that I didn’t want to hunt and peck when I was away from my own keyboard. Still, tempting!

    As for the bonus iPad comments, well said. The iPad just seems an ergonomic nightmare in several (not all) ways, but some of that would be eliminated if it would get decent handwriting recognition. And, if Apple keeps to their “Apple Über Alles” business model, they will, indeed, eventually introduce such — as soon as the market & competitors add enough pressure to users’ laments and they’re ready to make all older models obsolete so they can wring more tithes and offerings from the faithful. 🙂 Perhaps it will happen when the quixotic jihad against Flash cones to an end. [Note: The previous paragraph was written with a tongue-in-cheek factor (ticfac) of 73%.]

    Finally, nice-though-unexpected comments about base systems in numeration. Indeed, there is too much diversity in the universe at the present time to suggest any one base system over another. Converting the divisions of time into Base 12 has no mathematical benefit over converting them into Base 10 (which the French last tried for 12 years about 200 years ago, an effort which the Beast power mercifully put an end to) beyond the benefit of having an additional prime factor. The most natural Base system in the universe, if there is such an animal, could be argued to be Base 2, and who wants that? On the other hand, is it easier to teach the Base 10 system to children due to the fact that they conveniently have 10 fingers?

    Personally, the current system of time is much more organic — like the Imperial system of units — and I far prefer it to the arbitrary reassignments that have come up over time. And given that God’s prophetic time pronouncements seem to work in terms of 12 month years and 30 day months, He seems OK with a mixed system for now, as well. And that’s without even mentioning a 19 year solar/lunar synchronization — a prime number with no lower divisors at that! 🙂

  11. Base 8 or 16 (octal and hexadecimal) are quite convenient in the binary system of computing, though not so easy for decimal minds. And for fun there was UTF-9 and UTF-18.

    There are only 10 types of people in the world —
    those who understand binary, and those who don’t.

  12. Hi Mr. Smth,

    Why 19 years in a “time cycle”? Consider: 19 years for the lunisolar Metonic cycle (tied in with the agricultural seasons in the Holy Land) times the 7-year Sabbatical cycle (ditto) times the 50-year Jubilee cycle (ditto) gives what I call a Great Cycle of 950 years. Add another Jubilee cycle and you have a Millennium. (19 * 7 * 50) + 1 = 1000. 😀

    Will this have something to do with how the flow of events works out in the biblical Millennium? I think it likely.

  13. Not that I’m committing to any theological explanation, the math compels me to ask & point out… Ask: Do you mean “+ 50”? Point out: Either way, (19 * 7 * 50) + 1 = 6,651 and (19 * 7 * 50) + 50 = 6,700. Is your formulation lost in translation, or am I missing something?

  14. No, I goofed (now you know why I’m not a mathematician; like young Christopher Robin Milne, A.A. Milne’s son, I “can do the hard sums but not the easy ones”).

    (19 x ((7 x 7) + 1)) + 50 = 1,000. Or more simply, (19 x 50) + 50 = 1,000.

    Nineteen Jubilee cycles (each Jubliee comprised of seven Sabbatical cycles plus 1 year) plus one more Jubilee cycle equals a Millennium.

    Clear as mud? 😀

  15. Much better! 🙂

    Though, I must say (not that I want to extend this digression any further) it’s the “plus one” that always causes me to not think too much of most calculations like that. It often seems that many supposedly “divinely planned” calculations only work if that “extra one” is added or taken away — even some notorious Sunday-versus-Saturday thinking. It doesn’t cause me to dismiss things outright, but it does, admittedly, leave me with a taste of comes-up-short-ness in my mouth outside the presence of additional evidence to consider such calculations to be significant.

  16. Craig

    Strange, but the top row of my Apple keyboard says F1, F2, F3, etc. I quess that makes it a “Functional” keyboard. LOL

    Different strokes… just last week attended a live review of the iPad and the software designer who bought in the U.S. (not released here until end of the month), was just raving how easy it was to use the virtual keyboard. The beauty of a virtual keyboard is with just a software change it can flip from QWERTY to Dvorak or anything else including foreign languages.

    BTW, it looks like it will be over Steve Jobs’ dead body when you will have Flash!

  17. Howdy, Mr. Marley. I certainly don’t mind virtual keyboards, at all. I love the one on my iPhone and have gotten rather fast on it. But on the iPad it’s just ergonomically unsound, given the tablet layout.

    And you’re right about a virtual keyboard being able to switch to a Dvorak in a snap — except that Apple refuses to do it (see here), and one must jailbreak his iPhone or iPad to remove them from Steve’s benighted grip before you can add that functionality, yourself. (Or you can go to an ugly “middleman work around” by buying a Dvorak app, but it is only a partial solution and requires cutting-and-pasting.)

    Unwilling to add a simple feature that takes virtually no effort and which many of their die hard fans really want… Welcome to Apple, folks.

    As for Uncle Steve and Flash, I do suspect you’re right. And the guys at Adobe may not mind that condition so much. 🙂 Until then, I will have to settle for my wonderful iPhone’s stupidly unnecessary limitations, and go to a real computer if I want to step outside its artificial boundaries.

  18. I don’t trust such calculations much for the same reason, Mr. Smith, but consider the conditions that may arise in the last generation (so to speak: 50 years) of the Millennium before Satan is finally released. Just sayin’… 🙂

  19. Flash digression: iPad apps are the new Flash runtime. Adobe created a product that’d publish the content to either Flash or as an iPod app. Then Apple blocked that with an EULA edit. Jobs said they want customers locked into their products instead of a third party. Naturally, Adobe is campaigning wanting customers locked into their products.

  20. I understand all the chest beating — it’s human nature. Jobs wants all the money he can get, as does Adobe. However, it’s Jobs who is telling me that I can get “the entire Internet” on my device (as iPhone commercials used to say, “The real internet”). Until he means it, he shouldn’t say it.

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